Flash in Education

Looking at my twitter feed I have been a little taken aback by the amount of glee taken in the supposed demise of Flash.  My surprise didn’t come because I was unaware that ill feeling towards Flash existed but that my twitter feed is mostly educationalists and teachers.

Software developers have their own reasons for technological choices but why the happiness amongst those who are mostly end users of the software?  Do people really care that a program is coded in a particular language or utilises a certain piece of technology?  Granted, users of the mobile web won’t miss Flash.  Apple’s refusal to have it on their systems meant that there was no point in developers producing Flash resources for mobile.  In the end whether Flash could have worked well on mobile will remain forever unknown as it was never given the chance.  To be fair to Adobe there was no point in them persisting in pursuing what could only ever be a fragment of the mobile web as Apple looked like being forever closed to them.  The ubiquitous nature of Flash is expected to erode with it, at best, becoming a niche platform that exists only on the desktop.  For the first time, however, the possibility of it eventually totally disappearing has arisen.

So, according to many tweets from teachers and educationalists, Flash’s expected demise is a good thing; the switch to HTML5 a good thing.  The strength of belief in this is what I struggle to understand and why there is even any interest in the delivering technology.   Here are some thoughts on how the demise of Flash will impact on teachers and schools.

 What has Flash ever done for us?


Look at all of those Interactive Whiteboard resource sites out there.  Free ones like my own, paid for ones, all in Flash.   Flash was the tool of choice because it standardised separate systems and browsers. Write once deploy anywhere was Flash’s goal.  When these sites wrote a resource they could test it on one machine and then publish it online confident that it could be used on any machine.  It cannot be underestimated how important it is not to have to write workarounds for individual machines and test on many different setups.  It takes time, money, and frustration.  The more any of these occur the more the end user will pay, either in money terms  or in less free resources.

Do you use any online interactive resources that use sound?  That’ll be Flash.  HTML5 the “good thing” versus Flash’s “bad thing” is awful at this.  At the moment to get even basic sound functionality on HTML5 is a feat of programming engineering.

Where has all the free stuff gone?  This is a question that might well be heard more and more with the demise of Flash.  Teachers like free resources.  Finding that ideal, freely accessible, IWB resource can often save a teacher hours of planning or creating their own.

One suggested theory of Apple’s dislike of Flash was that it could damage its app store model.  If fully interactive resources exist online, either for free or subscribed to, Apple is cut out of the money.  The response of developers is to release everything as an app.  You pay for these.  Granted some are free but most aren’t especially in a full format.  If they are free because of advertisements the ad will be prominent  in the resource.  The option to put ads in the site but leave the resources clean of ads just can’t work in an app.  Nobody can argue that a learning resource is not negatively  impacted on by prominent advertisements.  Without Flash there is no way to reach a big enough cross platform audience to support the development with non-prominent advertising.  If nobody uses Flash all of the old resources will die as the Flash Player becomes unmaintained and incompatible with new browsers and operating systems.  All the free stuff might be gone.

Maybe these sites will switch to making free resources in HTML5.  Maybe, maybe not.  None of a developer’s work in HTML5 is protected – anyone can steal it.  Do people want to make their work free and see others pass it off as their own?  Support for HTML5 is not universal now nor is it likely to be so for some time to come.  Granted certain aspects are finalised, others require a specific implementation per browser.  Internet Explorer 10, not the new current IE, the next one, will not be fully, HTML5 compliant.  The extra graphics power that HTML5 needs from a technology called WebGL to allow advanced graphics, of the kind Flash offers now, is not planned to be included in Internet Explorer ever.  So you can use one of the browsers that does support the resource you want to use.  But what if you can’t?  Internet Explorer is often criticised but of teacherLED.com’s  65,000 visitors last month 47000 were with IE.  Of these only 7000 were with the most recent version and hence HTML5 compatible IE9.  So in the last month less than a quarter of my site’s visitors, presumably teachers,  have been able to use my new resources produced entirely in html5 but which  took 10 times longer to test than a flash resource.  And still I get comments from people with setups that should work but don’t, or at least not properly.  It might be a standard one day but it isn’t yet.

Most schools in the UK don’t maintain multiple browsers on their systems.  Even the ones they do have are not updated to recent versions that often.  Flash produced frequent, automatic updates, that allowed new features to be added frequently.  Is this likely to change so that schools have multiple up to date browsers to suit the site that is to be used?

HTML5 will catch up though right?  Well, HTML4 was finalised in 1997, HTML5, as of now, isn’t finalised.  14 years later.  In that time Flash has led the way through every feature that HTML5 aims to have and many that it hasn’t even thought about.  Design by committee may be democratic but it isn’t known for agility or speed.  The HTML working group expects it all to be done in about 2022.  And no, that isn’t, sarcasm that is the expected date.

I don’t doubt that HTML5 will eventually make good on its deficiencies.  But that isn’t now.  For now we will have to get by with a probable winding down of Flash development and a fragmentation of the support for different web based teaching resources.  Expect to test a resource at home then find it won’t work on a school computer.  Expect less new resources as nobody wants to invest time and effort into what people seem to be happy to see as a dead platform.  Will the IWB resource sites rebuild using HTML5 instead of Flash? Perhaps some but probably not all.

What emerges in the end is almost certainly going to involve using the app stores of various companies for rich educational content.  This model is now established.  A rational choice for the developer of an educational resource might well be to go this route rather than the website access that we now use.   And as these app stores take a 30% cut from the developer’s prices expect the cost to be higher than you might think.  Will this new model be our choice as educational content consumers or what has been dictated to us by corporations that have made us think that the delivering technology is important rather than the outcome?

Perhaps in the future we might remember the good old days when we could go online on any internet connected computer and access excellent, free teaching resources that saved us valuable planning time and brought interactivity to the lesson.  Will we remember that so many seemed so happy at the demise of the technology that allowed that?  Until people were told not to like Flash had they ever even really thought about it?

To learn more about the Flash HTML5 debate there are a couple of excellent articles here by developers who work in both and whose points I have used in the above:


G Skinner

Feel free to disagree in the comments below or to respond by twitter. @teacherled